This week and next week Thomas Hatch describes how the effort to provide “computer science for all” has developed in New York City. The first part focuses on some of the ways that early initiatives to develop new schools and courses with a focus on computer science education helped to lay the foundation for New York City’s pledge to provide all NYC public school students with a “meaningful, high‐quality computer science education.” The next week’s post will reflect on how and why computer science education has taken off and will consider the extent to which it fits into what David Tyack and Larry Cuban have called the “grammar of schooling.”
“Computer science for all” has taken off. A variety of teachers, academics, and programsaround the US have been working to help students learn about computer science for some time, but many point to 2013 as the year when a new movement began to pick up steam. That year, nationally, Code.org launched the now annual “Hour of Code” campaign; districts, including Chicago, quickly started adding computer science classes; and in New York City, CSNYCwas created to ensure that all New York City’s 1.1 million public school students have access to a high-quality computer science education. Then in 2015, New York Citypledged that all its public schools would be required to offer computer science classes by 2025; and in 2016, then President Obama provided the official stamp of approval by announcingthat “in the new economy, computer science isn’t an optional skill—it’s a basic skill, right along with the three R’s.”
Although Congress never authorized the $4 billion dollars the Obama administration requested for computer science education in the 2017 budget, the White House and the National Science Foundation partnered to commit $120 million to the Computer Science for All effort. More recently, the Trump administration directed the US Department of Education to make available $200 million dollars for grants related to computer science education while another $300 million dollars in pledges came from a partnership with the Internet Associationand companies like Amazon, Facebook, Salesforce, Google and Microsoft. As one indicator of the increasing attention to computer science, the introduction in 2016-17 of a new AP course on “Computer Science Principles” contributed to a sharp increasein the number of students taking an AP exam in computer science, including significant increases in the numbers of female, Latinx, and Black students taking the exam. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of students taking the AP Computer Science Principles exam increased again, by almost 50% from 50,000 to 76,000.
Changes usually seem to come slowly in schools, but this rapid expansion of K-12 computer science initiatives illustrates both some of the key opportunities and the challenges of making large-scale changes in education systems. In particular, the development of Computer Science for All illustrates how initiatives that fit into what Tyack and Cuban call the “grammar of schooling” can take off with the backing and resources of political elites. In fact, in some ways, “Computer Science For All” has emerged as a kind of “social movement.” Marshall Ganz describes social movements as emerging from “the efforts of purposeful actors (individuals, organizations) to assert new public values, form new relationships rooted in those values, and mobilize the political, economic, and cultural power to translate these values into action.” But, Michael Preston, the former Executive Director of CSNYC (a partner organization for New York City’s Computer Science for All [CS4All] initiative) stresses that what the movement actually achieves depends on much more than how far and how fast it spreads. In a series of conversations, Preston highlighted some of the developments that set the stage for New York City’s commitment to provide a “meaningful, high‐quality computer science education” at every level by 2025. In the process, he highlighted that engaging all students in meaningful and rigorous computer science learning experiences depends on developing what amounts to an “infrastructure” for computer science learning, including developing the curricula, assessments, tools, preparation programs, professional development supports, professional networks, and organizational relationships that can reach every school in the City.
From two new schools to a portfolio of computer science programs
Even before computer science education picked up steam across the country, Fred Wilson, a venture capitalist, was working to support the spread of computer science education in New York City. Wilson’s interest grew as he realized that many of the technology related start-ups he invested in couldn’t hire enough local talent. From Wilson’s perspective, the fact that computer science courses were primarily available in the most selective high schools with exceptionally high percentages of White and Asian students also made increasing access to computer science to students from all backgrounds a particularly pressing equity issue.
To respond to the problem, in 2010, Wilson sought out the advice of members of the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE). They recommended Wilson start a new school dedicated to computer science education and take advantage of the NYC DOE’s decade-long support for creating and replicating small schools. As Preston, described it:
“I think the consensus at the DOE was that if you create a new school model, you can set the conditions for an innovative new practice to take shape. The idea was that they would open up a new small high school that would be a model for teaching computer science at an unscreened school [a school without admissions requirements] so that any student could apply; there wouldn’t be any academic pre-requisite; and every student who came through the door could get a rigorous sequence of computer science. But in every other way it would be a typical new small school.”
Acting on that advice, Wilson teamed up with the DOE’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness to open the Academy for Software Engineering in 2012. The Bronx Academy for Software Engineering launched a year later and both schools quickly got to work developing a multi-year sequence for computer science instruction. While those schools were able to enroll high percentages of Hispanic and Black students as well as students qualifying for free or reduced price lunch, from the beginning those efforts also sought to address predictable challenges like developing a gender-balanced approach that appealed to both males and females. “Both schools were 80% male initially,” Preston explained, which reflected the applicant pool. “If you name your school something with software engineering in the title,” he added, “you may not attract the most balanced applicant pool.”
The intense effort that those schools had to put into creating a rigorous computer science sequence also highlighted the need for more extensive curricula as well as a “pipeline” of K-12 educators with relevant preparation and expertise in computer science. To begin to meet those demands, in 2013, the DOE also launched the Software Engineering Pilot Program, which aimed to develop a 3-4 year sequence of computer science courses for middle and for high school. As Debbie Marcus, current Executive Director for Computer Science Education at the DOE described it, the program was a key step in pursuing the vision that “Computer Science education could be for every student in New York City, not just those in the new schools.” According to Marcus, the work on the pilot helped to build a foundation for the later rollout of Computer Science education across the City and contributed some key learnings along the way. In particular, the pilot engaged 40 teachers a year from many different subjects in a professional learning partnership with DOE-created curricula and resources. Those teachers were able to bring pedagogical and subject-matter expertise that made it clear that computer science learning opportunities could be integrated into many different courses, not just computer science courses. In addition, the pilot created opportunities to learn how to engage principals in the implementation process, both to ensure time for teachers to learn from experiences with a new subject and to set up plans to spread computer science learning opportunities throughout a school.
At the same time, as another way to build the infrastructure to support the spread of computer science education in New York City, Wilson worked with nonprofit expert Sarah Holloway and NYU computer science professor Evan Korth to create the New York City Foundation for Computer Science Education (CSNYC). Among its initiatives, CSNYC developed partnerships with a number of computer science related programs from around the country and sought to help them take root in New York City. As Leigh Ann DeLyser (current Director of Education and Research at CSNYC) and Preston described in an initial history of the development of CSNYC, those program partners included:
- Exploring Computer Science Curriculum– A year-long, introductory level,high school computer science curriculum and teacher professional development program
- Beauty and Joy of Computing– An AP Computer Science Principles Course developed by faculty at the University of California at Berkeley and members of the Education Development Centerin partnership with the DOEd
- Bootstrap– Curriculum modules to help teachers of math and science in 6th-12thgrades to incorporate computer science content into their courses
- Scalable Game Design– Classroom guides and professional development activities that help teachers to enable students to learn computational thinking while creating computer-related games.
- TEALS (Technology Education and Literacy in Schools) – A program of Microsoft Philanthropies that recruits, trains, mentors, and places volunteer technology professionals from industry in high school classrooms as partners with teachers
These initial investments created a kind of “portfolio” of programs that represented a variety of different approaches to computer science education and engaged many different stakeholders in the work. In the process, CSNYC itself began to expand its own goals from providing seed funding to providing connections and coordination to help the computer science education sector in the City develop in a more coherent way. For example, CSNYC established two “meetups” where teachers and others involved and interested in computer science education could get together on a regular but relatively informal basis. CSNYC also helped to track progress and identify several critical challenges that the various initiatives in the sector experienced: finding enough qualified teachers and creating enough “real world” computer science related internships and experiences for students. To address these needs, CSNYC cultivated relationships with a variety of local universities and businesses.
All of this activity established a loose network of programs and a wide and engaged group of stakeholders that, according to CSNYC helped to expand computer science opportunities from a few New York City schools in 2013 to over 100 schools and over 10,000 students by 2015. As a result, when new Mayor Bill de Blasio was ready to develop some signature initiatives, Preston noted that expanding computer science across the City was already “tee’d up.” Building on that momentum, in the fall of 2015 de Blasio significantly upped the ante with the establishment of CS4All and the announcement that by 2025 all NYC public school students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, would receive “meaningful, high‐quality computer science education.” In addition, the announcement pledged that over the ten years from 2015 to 2025, the DOE and private partners would train “nearly 5,000 teachers who will bring computer science education to the City’s ~1.1 million public school students.”
- Thomas Hatch